By Kathleen Gilbert

MENLO PARK, California, January 26, 2009 ( – When research giant Geron Corp. announced that the FDA had approved a trial involving implantation of embryo-derived nerve cells into patients with damaged spinal cords, company stock soared and the mainstream media received the news as a breakthrough in regenerative medicine.  But the event has not impressed some experts, who say that embryonic stem-cells are still far behind safer and significantly more successful adult stem cell treatments.

The trial in question will attempt to validate the safety of implanting nerve cells grown from embryonic stem cells (ESCs).  It is not expected to manifest the efficacy of the treatment, though patients will be monitored for any recovery of sensation. 

Geron CEO Thomas Okarma said that, despite suggestions to the contrary in some media, the timing of the new trial is not related to the Obama administration’s plan to restore federal funding to ESC research.  Okarma called the trial “the dawn of a new era in medical therapeutics.”

Dr. David van Gend, national director of Australians for Ethical Stem Cell Research, however, says he sees nothing groundbreaking in the use of riskier, embryo-derived cells, when adult stem cells have already been shown effective at healing spinal injuries.
“All Geron Corp. has done is turn all their embryonic stem cells into mature nerve cells (which is a big ‘so what?’ given that we can get such nerve cells by far simpler means) then inject that bunch of ordinary nerve cells, and hope like hell that there is not a single embryonic stem cell left in the mix. If there is, Geron is putting the patient at risk of a tumor on the spine,” said van Gend, according to a Catholic News Service article.

Though some news publications have stated that ESCs are being given to the trial patients, Van Gend stressed that ESCs are not “being given to patients at last.”
“They never have been and never can be put into humans, because embryonic stem cells form tumors in animals,” he said.  “Only adult stem cells can be put into humans – and have been used now successfully in thousands of patients.”  

Pro-life bioethicist Wesley Smith concurred with Van Gend: “Adult stem cell therapies have been in human trials for several years for paralysis caused by spinal cord injury – and the first peer reviewed study showing a restoration of feeling never received the coverage in the media that Geron has received repeatedly for years about this prospective trial – apparently because our news censors believed they were the wrong kind of stem cells.”

In the arena of adult stem cells, spinal repair began taking promising steps as early as 2006, when neuroscientist Geoffrey Raisman began a series of trials that successfully utilized nerve tissue from a patient’s own nasal lining to rebuild the damaged spine.  Raisman now heads the spinal repair unit at the University College London.


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